Connie is a fifteen-year-old teenager growing up in suburbia in the 1960s. She is preoccupied with typical teenage concerns: her looks and popular music. She argues with her mother, makes fun of her older, plainer sister, and hangs out with her friends in restaurants, movie theaters, and shopping malls. During these summertime social ventures, she and her friends try to attract the attention of the older high-school boys. One evening, while on a date, Connie notices a boy with black hair and a gold “jalopy”—a beat-up sports car—staring at her.
One Sunday while her parents and sister attend a family barbecue, Connie, contemptuous of family gatherings, elects to stay home and wash her hair. As she sits in the backyard letting her hair dry, she thinks about the boy she had been with the night before. Later, while listening to the radio inside the house, she hears a car coming up the driveway. Thinking that her family would not be home so soon, she goes to the window and sees that it is not her parents’ car, but a gold jalopy that she does not remember having seen before. Her heart pounds, her fingers straighten her hair, and when the horn taps several times, she goes to the side door to meet the visitor.
There are two men in the car, and Connie watches them from the screen door. She now recognizes the driver as the one who had stared at her at the restaurant. He asks “I ain’t late, am I?” as if they had a date. Connie makes small talk with him while deciding whether or not she likes him. He introduces himself as Arnold Friend, the other boy as Ellie, and he shows off his car, which is painted with words, pictures, and numbers. He invites her to go for a ride.
Arnold Friend seems to know many things about Connie: her name, who her friends are, and the fact that her family is gone for the afternoon. Connie notices that an expression painted on his car—”man the flying saucers”—is outdated; it was popular the year before. She also realizes that, although he wears the right clothes and talks like all the kids, he seems older and out of place. His hair appears to be a wig, he wears lifts in his boots, and his face looks as if it is caked with makeup. Though he claims to be eighteen, Connie suspects that he is at least thirty. When Arnold’s friend Ellie turns around, Connie sees he looks like a forty-year-old baby. Connie realizes something is wrong and tells them to go away.
Arnold refuses to leave without her. Connie threatens that her father will return, but Arnold knows that he will be at the barbecue all afternoon—he even knows where it is and what Connie’s sister is wearing. His conversation becomes more intimate. He calls her “lover” and talks about having sex with her and holding her so tightly she will not be able to get away. Connie becomes frightened and backs away from the door. She threatens to call the police, but Arnold, who has pledged not to come in the house, threatens to come in after her if she touches the phone. When she says that her father is coming back to get her, Arnold knows she is lying. Ellie asks if he should pull out the phone lines.
Arnold tells Ellie to shut up and urges Connie to come outside. He threatens to harm her whole family if she does not cooperate. When Ellie again asks him about the phone, Arnold becomes irritated and lists off a series of slang phrases from different decades, trying to find the one that is current. He continues to threaten Connie’s family and implies that he has killed one of the neighbors. Connie asks what he is going to do with her and he says he has a few things in mind, but that she will learn to like him. In fear, Connie stumbles her way to the phone but is unable to dial; she simply screams into the receiver. When she stops, Arnold is standing by the door. Her fear is replaced by emptiness, and she understands that she will leave the house and never return. She approaches the screen door and watches herself opening it, feeling as if she no longer inhabits her own body. She walks out into the sunlight where Arnold waits, assuming a mocking gesture of welcome.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Joyce Carol Oates, Published by Gale, 1997.